Inside the Internet Art Bubble

08/17/2011 4:00 AM |

The internet finally seems to have made a dint in New York’s institutional art world. Cory Arcangel, an artist who began his career manipulating old computer technologies and critiquing web culture, has an entire floor to himself at The Whitney. At the age of 33, his show Pro Tools makes him the youngest artist to receive a solo show at the institution since Bruce Nauman in 1973. Meanwhile, over at MoMA PS1, 30-year-old art star Ryan Trecartin is gathering steam with his four hour-plus video exhibiton of fucked-up child-adults on Blackberries, titled Any Ever. The show at PS1, chock full of internet jargon, is just one stop on a world tour that includes the Istanbul Modern Museum and the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.

Given the ridiculous level of buzz now surrounding these shows, one has to wonder just what we’re expecting from the art. Although local critics have mostly panned Arcangel’s exhibition, initial press included profiles in The New Yorker, New York Magazine, and the New York Times—a barometer of significant pre-show hype. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to proffer an opinion about that show, even if they haven’t seen the exhibition or don’t know anything about the art, a sure sign of The Emperor Has No Clothes syndrome. While Ryan Trecartin’s pre-press was a little more subdued, once the show opened critics basically queued up to laud it. The Times‘s Roberta Smith described the show as a “game-changer,” praise topped only by The New Yorker‘s Peter Schjeldahl, who described Trecartin as “the most consequential artist to emerge since the mid-eighties.” Apparently, he’s our Jeff Koons.

Two questions come to mind: First, is it really the art that’s prompting this clamor? And second, how did Arcangel and Trecartin end up garnering such a focus in the first place? The answer to the first question is obvious: virtually no media frenzy bears a one-to-one relationship with its subject, and the internet/tech hype might be the most powerful gimmick yet in the buzz-thirsty NYC museum world. (Just look at MoMA’s Talk To Me, a design show on communication technology sure to bring in foot traffic, with little to no relation to art.)

The answer to the second question, though, is a little more complicated. Producing strong work does some obvious good for a career, but doesn’t necessarily result in shows and reviews. Rather, for a myriad of the most sudden art stars, it’s more about producing the right work at the right time, and getting that work to the right people. Trecartin and Arcangel benefited from exceptional timing and exceptional support, and in the case of both artists, it’s useful to look at the roles of narrative, collaboration, and technology as a means of tracking their success. It’s less useful to buy into the kind of thinking that tells us anything we do with our phones and computers is somehow inherently interesting and worthy of artistic exploration.

Let’s begin with Cory Arcangel, who by most accounts saw his career take off after his inclusion in the 2004 Whitney Biennial. Nearly every critic mentioned the artist’s hacked Super Mario Bros. video game, a projection that removed all the landscape elements from the game, but for the clouds. The response was mixed, but the attention made visible a groundswell of interest in his work that had been percolating for several years.

If no single event or artwork brought Arcangel to this early marker of stardom, what exactly were people responding to? It’s hard to say, but part of it had to be the exuberant sense of purpose Arcangel and his crowd brought to digital technology. At the time, many people didn’t even know what a browser was, let alone that art could exist on it, but there was a sense that this was changing. A cadre of like-minded artists and curators scattered across the world—Paper Rad, Marcin Ramocki and Lauren Cornell to name a few—were making that shift happen. Part of the allure of Arcangel’s video games was that an understanding of cultural context was necessary for people to get the art.

10 Comment

  • Your final point about the work doesn’t make for bad art. It’s not about the content of the responses. I admire both of these artist’s work, and don’t think it’s as internet-centric in the end as how you make it out to be. This is why it’s good.

  • I’m not saying it’s bad – though of course Trecartin is overhyped. It’s really just sad that a message as bleak as Trecartin’s is celebrated as though he’s just told us some great news.

  • The headline could also be “Good Art Recognized as Good.” How are these story of discovery, recognition, and good timing any different from that of a hot painter like Dana Schutz or Laura Owens? Is their technique “gimmicky” because it brings something new to the discourse about painting?

    Also I want to voice dissent with your conclusion that Trecartin’s work is bleak. Yes, there are plenty of dark and frightening moments, but there are joyous moments too, and the artist wouldn’t use YouTube and Twitter if he despised them (in fact, he’s expressed a positive attitude toward them in interviews and public appearances many times). People are still arguing over whether Warhol critiqued or celebrated consumer culture; Trecartin’s work, like any important art, is ambiguous, and that’s what makes it a rich experience that people enjoy.

    Finally, before you ever again describe an artist’s work as “overhyped” (especially when you have been a major contributor to that hype) read what Nico Muhly says about hype:

  • Apropos of nothing, or perhaps of extreme relevance, I think people should check this guy out. He’s a contemporary of both these dudes ( interesting work on both counts ) but hardly “known”…to the extent that I’m not sure if “known” is his goal. The things he does with technology are challenging, fucked up, and often beautiful:

    I think some of the mess in the art world has been the result of laziness from all sides, maybe it’s time for curators and critics to go beyond trawling the web, or waiting for large envelopes from the next graduating class. Never trust anyone under 30?

  • How can you make the claim that Arcangel’s work is in any way affected by his “recurring struggles with thyroid cancer”? What grounds do you have for that? It’s a cheap statement that does nothing for your argument but make evident that you’re inclined to go for an easy, sensational statement over a more nuanced analysis of the work.

  • I agree with your tracing of their respective paths to museum-art careers.

    With the title, I guess you actually mean “inside the internet-art-that-has-been-suddenly-reclaimed-by-museums” bubble. (I’m taking into consideration that there was probably a period in 1998 and 2000 when museums tried to incorporate/commission internet art) If it is about the growing trends of featuring current internet work in galleries, I’m wondering why it’s not constant dullaart (for being a big internet formalist) or JODI instead. Maybe their work is not as easily adapted to spatial presentation and would be confined to the browser and computing device.

    I also can’t help but compare the two in terms of various kinds of Caucasian male art-master persona. Cory Archangel does high concept nerdy/nostalgic things with technology (processual with lots of verbal puns like Nauman). Meanwhile Ryan Trecartin rides the high camp, intensified low-tech video aesthetic (closer to Warhol). Both make work that is sort of irreverent, but relatable in a specific cultural context. I know I’m overgeneralizing when I say all this, but while CA and RT’s work’s entry into the canons might change the game in terms of content, the “brand” of artist that these museums are choosing don’t differ too much from the types of postmodern masters featured in my “Art since 1945” textbook.

    While Trecartin’s work became popular on the internet at the beginning of his career, I feel that “the internet” is a theme that dominates readings of Trecartin’s work when there are so many other ways to analyze it. But I’m sure his appeal isn’t limited to the fact it is distributed on a social medium…

  • Well done for writing a sniffy article that just seems to resent good art getting recognition (good alternate title, Brian). You gesture towards possibly making some kind of critique, making little digs (mainly based on amount of “hype” they’ve generated though what they have actually generated seems closer to interesting dialogue, to me) but then trip up when it seems like you haven’t really got a point at all?

  • I’ll never understand why some commenters feel so compelled to belittle others as they make their points. It’s not like the comment would be any less valid were the comments phrased just a little more conversationally.

    I don’t know that anyone here would actually title the article “good art recognized as good”, when I’ve made it quite clear that I think Cory’s show was not good and the hype is the result of a larger public interest in the internet and social media. Ryan’s work isn’t bad, but it’s receiving more attention because the internet is a public interest museums wish to capitalize on. This is stated pretty clearly in the piece (and I don’t think it’s any different than Schutz other than a medium that is particularly topical) but I realize that there are a fair number of people who find this whole line of thinking an utter waste of time.

    Nico Muhly makes some good points in this regard and so do the commenters. Of course, they too are part of an ecosystem whereby commenters similarly patronize writers for playing into the system. We’re all guilty of that from time to time I think (playing into the system, not patronizing), but since I’ve always enjoyed thinking discussing hype (for me it usually helps me figure out what I think about the work) neither Muhly nor the commenters here are likely to curtail future pieces on the subject.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think the piece is without flaws. David Edgar says the point’s not clear enough and I think he’s right. He’s not right however to conclude there wasn’t one. (This statement that reads as though it were drawn primarily towards the end of making a dig.)

    As I mentioned earlier, I wanted to identify hype these artists were receiving and examine how it was generated and whether it was warranted. I think I did a fairly good job with Arcangel, but Trecartin could have been tightened. Had I done that, I’d probably still be dodging the mud slinging — I have the feeling that virtually everything I pen is a hate-read for Droitcour — but I would likely feel a little better doing it.

  • I think you are totally right. Trecartin is 16th century kitsch and arcangel is sentimental victim of the 70’s. I don’t trust the defensive comments here. People are just afraid to think differently especially after promoting these artists in every kitschen – ha ha – and possible blog.

    I promise you, as super stupid woman I can recognize my kind from a far. The works these artists produce are simply not intelligent.

    Ta ta,

    Tina Fey